Time to open ears and minds to globalisation

October 5, 2001

The 'non-official' Commonwealth can help provide valuable insights into global issues, argues Timothy Shaw.

The escalating standoff between advocates of "globalisation" and the "anti-globalisation movement" was transformed by the atrocities of September 11.

The terrorist attacks on the citadels of United States and western economic and military power should not be equated to the "battle of Seattle" or anarchist street antics in Gothenburg or Genoa. But they do represent a "fundamentalist" rejection of modern forms of capitalist globalisation. And they do indicate some of the attendant costs of inequalities, alienation and the vulnerabilities of international communication and finance.

There are no easy solutions. Aside from intensified diplomacy, security arrangements and attention to global and local inequalities, what the world needs is communication and education.

Interdisciplinary global studies have already been introduced in universities in the US, sometimes involving a year or term abroad. These need to take on board anti as well as pro-globalisation analyses.

Largely overlooked, the "non-official" Commonwealth is a forum for advancing global dialogue through tertiary education. Its 54 members have a history of formal and informal, inter and non-state interaction, largely through the Association of Commonwealth Universities. The non-governmental Commonwealth Foundation and the distance-education Commonwealth of Learning have augmented its role. And in Brisbane, around the timely people's - if not leaders' - summit, other networks are being reinforced around Commonwealth education, notably a long-mooted Association of Commonwealth Studies.

Commonwealth studies, juxtaposed with global studies, can put globalisation and anti-globalisation into context. This will enhance international understanding. Top-down and bottom-up forms of globalisation, that is, from international agencies and corporations on the one hand and NGOs and popular or people's movements on the other, need to be carefully analysed and contrasted. Both were in flux before September 11. Global companies seek association with the United Nations Global Compact and protection through codes of conduct and ethical investment, just as NGOs advance their own best practices. The compact includes those companies most vulnerable to consumer boycotts and sanctions named by Naomi Klein in her No Logo - an icon of the anti-globalisation movement.

The claims of revitalised and reoriented Commonwealth, and global, studies were rehearsed in a representative, even prescient commission for the Commonwealth chaired by Tom Symons five years ago. It identified the advantages of such interdisciplinary, international studies: that as a cross-section of humanity, the Commonwealth can provide insights into issues of global relevance. Commonwealth studies "may yield conclusions with a validity well beyond the confines of the Commonwealth itself".

The internet makes global studies possible. The ACS - an alliance among ACU, CF, COL and related NGOs, think-tanks and tertiary institutions - is intended to bring together the strands in the Commonwealth educational sector to advance enlightened policy and sustainable development through flexible, lifelong learning.

It is regrettable that the draft "Mbeki" High-Level Review of the inter-governmental Commonwealth, to have been debated and accepted at Brisbane, paid insufficient attention to education, though it may yet become more innovative before the postponed heads of government meeting in early 2001. Nevertheless, the association will ensure that the "people's Commonwealth" network prioritises education.

In turn, as incoming director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, I plan to introduce a second MA to complement that offered on human rights. "Globalisation and the Commonwealth" will offer classes on human development and security. It will treat issues such as ecology, gender, small island states (and global warming and money laundering) as well as issues over which it has been largely silent (blood diamonds, child labour, landmines and small arms). The official Commonwealth has been in the vanguard of international organisations in setting standards for democratic government - the Harare principles - and has at times suspended members. Given its size and status - just a quarter of the world's states - it has to be "smart". Likewise, Commonwealth studies, particularly after September 11, has to be in the avant-garde of the global educational revolution: not commercialisation but global citizenship for the 21st century.

Timothy M. Shaw is director of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies in the School of Advanced Study at the University of London. Details: www.sas.ac.uk/commonwealthstudies

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